June 3, 2011–September 3, 2011
The first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays is a celebrated volume known as the "First Folio." The First Folio earned its iconic status in part because it contains the plays of an author widely regarded as the world’s greatest playwright and because it is the first edition and sole source for half of those plays. Without the First Folio, we might not have such plays as Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and The Tempest. The Folio has been prized by both scholars and collectors. Scholars studied its text letter-by-letter; collectors drove its sales and increased its price. By the nineteenth century, it was so highly regarded that lists and censuses of copies were compiled; most Folios were rebound and repaired; and facsimile editions were produced for those who could not afford the real thing. As the First Folio gained prestige and copies traded hands through auctions and book dealers, the book spread around the globe. Copies can now be found as far from England as Japan and Australia. Over a third of the world’s copies reside within the walls of the Folger Shakespeare Library, having been collected by Henry Clay Folger between 1893 and 1928.
Although not a particularly rare book compared to other seventeenth century publications, good copies can command millions of dollars at auction; its high value, in turn, has encouraged theft. This website and the exhibition it accompanies explore the colorful history of the First Folio, from its modest beginnings in the seventeenth century to stories of theft and recovery of an idolized book, recounting how it came to mean so much across cultures and continents.